Saturday, September 13, 2008 

Weekend links.

Torygraph has an animal-centred pictures of the week.

Pollyanna T remains deluded about Labour's chances at the next election, although she's completely right that we don't need yet another centrist party - Clegg's Liberal Democrats.

Paul Linford thinks that Labour might at last be setting out some sort of vision. I think that's rather optimistic too.

Though Cowards Flinch - Rebels without a cause. David Semple on the latest sad parade of no-hopers challenging Brown while offering no actual alternative.

This week's questions answered by Chris Dillow.

David Semple again - Death to Jade Goody

Anton Vowl presents the Richard Littlejohn drinking game.

Wardman Wire - This paedomania must end.

Matthew Parris argues unusually poorly that Labour must end compassion.

The Scum gives the Islamist moron Anjem Choudary the air of publicity, then demands that he be deported from the country he was presumably born in for daring to say things that no one other than his band of pathetic followers and likely MI5 would have known about had they not decided to bring it to public attention.

Flying Rodent - ZaNu-Labour's Elitist Contempt For The Hard-Working British Coward

Jihadica - On the letters Zawahiri apparently sent to the Islamic State of Iraq.

Finally, the Daily Maybe and Douglas Johnson cover Sarah Palin's in equal measure hilarious and terrifying first media interviews.

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Friday, September 12, 2008 

Mutilating the corpse.

First things first - despite all the hype and spin, not necessarily down to Gordon Brown himself, but over enthusiastic briefers desperate to try and turn the corner and resorting to hyperbole, the "relaunch package", if it was ever meant to be one, has been an utter disaster. First the feeble attempts to get the housing market moving again when the only thing the government should be doing is to ensure that the fall in prices does not turn into a rout were rightly derided, then yesterday's utterly pitiful package of methods meant to deal with the rise in electric and gas bills fell apart with 24 hours, and as usual, was typically summed up by Steve Bell. With the energy companies warning they will indeed pass the cost onto the consumer and thumb their noses ever harder at everyone other than their shareholders, Downing Street is probably bitterly regreting not enforcing a windfall tax, which could have at least gone towards real across the board help which might have made something approaching a difference.

Brown then still has his reverse midas touch in full effect, with everything turning to shit the moment he looks at it; touching isn't even required. This hasn't though resulted, until today, in anything approaching an uprising against him. Some of those who previously looked as though they might have overthrown him during the summer holiday have instead fallen back and at the least decided to give him the benefit of the doubt until the end of the conference season. Charles Clarke's intervention last week, where he offered absolutely nothing other than a irrelevant reappraisal of Blairism, was dismissed and forgotten by the beginning of this week, such was the lack of gravitas which the former home secretary now suffers from.

In fact, Clarke's failure to articulate what Labour should be doing which it is not now seems to be a symptom that all those that want Brown to stand down now or to face a leadership challenge appear to share. No one could have probably predicted that it would be a whip that would be the next to speak out against Brown, but it could have been what views the individual that did has previously had and still has now. No surprises then that Siobhain McDonagh, formerly PPS to the ultra-Blairite thug John Reid has herself not once voted against the government (perhaps not quite true - it appears she voted moderately against the smoking ban, or at least wasn't there for a couple of votes). Some might see such blind sycophancy as an asset - others, considering the very worst excesses of New Labour, will see it as both tragic and nauseating.

Like with those that have given their names to an article in tomorrow's Progress magazine, which is of course the official Blairite journal, McDonagh doesn't offer anything even approaching an alternative way forward for Labour. They all want Brown to establish a "narrative" that will get us through the credit crunch, but they themselves don't want to articulate what it is. Their only suggestion is that Brown himself is not up to task, and must stand down and be replaced by someone equally ill-prepared to do anything other than sink further into the sand.

When considering what is such an alarming lack of lucidity and rigour, I can't help but be reminded of something that Alastair Campbell mentions in his diaries when it came to the media attacking Stephen Byers. They weren't just satisfied that they'd succeeded in killing him - i.e. by forcing his resignation - they had to desecrate and mutilate the corpse as well. So it is with the Labour party at the moment. They aren't just satisfied that they've completely destroyed it, probably as an electoral force for a generation if not for good through the disaster of Blairism, they want to gouge out its eyes and jump up and down on its brain as well. How else can you possibly account for such a pointless exercise as changing the leader yet again? Getting rid of Brown will not save the Labour party, especially when no one in it apart from the likes of Cruddas and the smarter brains of Compass when they're not devising windfall taxes has any idea as to what needs to be done to at least begin rebuilding general support, but it will further show the public that all the party cares about is infighting. Cutting one head off the corpse and replacing it with another, whether it's Miliband's or anyone else's, will not reconnect the blood flow. The one thing that might staunch the blood loss is a change in policies - but not a single one of those calling for Brown to go has suggested a single one that needs to be changed. They've brought Labour this low and they still don't get it. They are the problem - not the solution.

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Not everything the Sun does is instantly condemnable...

Considering that I'm probably one of the Sun newspaper's most trenchant critics, it deserves to be said that today's front page splash on a party held at Holloway prison is a fully justified and shaming incident which really ought to raise wider questions about what those in authority in such institutions really think is and is not acceptable. The fact that it was a Halloween party adds to the incredulity, but honestly, when is any sort of officer-approved party apart from perhaps at Christmas or when someone long suspected to be innocent is finally released acceptable, especially when it involves the other inmates apparently being neglected so that it could be monitored?

Apart from no doubt further disgusting the relatives of those killed by some of those featured in the photograph, it will also further push the idea that prisons themselves are cushy establishments where punishment is often the last thing that takes place in them. The fact that is often as far from the truth as it's possible to get - with women's prisons especially often filled with the mentally ill and the drug addicted, where self-harm and suicide attempts are an everyday occurrence - is ever harder to argue when such evidence of largesse, insensitivity and downright stupidity by those meant to be in charge comes to light. For once you can't possibly blame Jack Straw for reacting instantly to a headline, ordering that any such incidents be shelved immediately.

There must be some credit paid to the Sun also - the paper could have really gone to town with such an exclusive if it had wished to - instead only publishing this rather mild in the circumstances leader comment:

KILLERS go to jail for punishment.

They are not banged up to enjoy fancy dress parties.

The sight of convicted murderers having a Halloween knees-up in Holloway prison will heap untold anguish on their victims’ relatives.

A civilised nation will be astonished at this lax regime — at taxpayers’ expense.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw must take charge today by cancelling plans for any more parties in jails.

And sacking whoever was responsible.

Very little that can be disagreed with.

It would be remiss though not to comment also on this latest apology from the Sun, even if it is to a former highly unpleasant Big Brother contestant:

WE would like to make clear Big Brother contestant Alexandra De Gale was not issued with a six-month restraining order by Croydon Magistrates, has never physically threatened former colleague Laura Barnes or any of her family and is not involved in a relationship with Courtney Hutchinson nor any other member of the PDC gang as we reported on June 7.

We apologise for the mistake.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008 

Those new Tories.

All this week the Guardian has been treating us to a series of articles on the "new Tories". It's very tempting to dismiss the entire idea immediately out of hand, as has been New Labour's execrable policy, and to go by the briefing from such socialist luminaries as James Purnell, this is still the emphasis which the party is going to continue with. It's true that by no means has the Conservative party had anything approaching the reflective soul-searching which resulted in the New Labour project, nor has there been such a decisive if shallow message that the party has changed akin to the abandoning of Clause 4.

Such gestures however have not been necessary because of Labour's incompetence and failure to learn from its mistakes. When considering the new Conservatives, what has to be remembered first of all is that it was a very old Conservative policy, the promise to abolish tax on inheritance for all but the very richest estates which catapulted the Conservatives back into the opinion poll lead, bringing Gordon Brown's short-lived honeymoon to an abrupt end. Ever since it has been one disaster and fiasco following another, combined with the economic downturn which has made Labour so incredibly unpopular. While many now see David Cameron as the best man to lead the country, what has not been shown is that same country is in any sense agreeing with the party's solutions - rather, they have become fed up to the back-teeth with a Labour party that has become socially authoritarian, economically illiterate and which has abandoned any attempts at deciding what it stands for or, more pertinently, who it stands for.

The tension, disengagement and pessimism which this has cast on whom should be the party's natural supporters was evident at this week's TUC conference. The unions are now according to some reports funding the party by up to 90% - accordingly, you would imagine that such influence would be causing the party to shift leftwards. Instead, if anything, the party is more craven and broken when it comes to addressing big business than it has ever been. While I personally do not believe that the case for a windfall tax on the energy companies' gross profits has been made, you would have expected that the party could have wrung far more concessions from them than they actually did. Instead what Brown has delivered has been little more feeble than the supposed attempt to get the housing market restarted. While that was a futile exercise, no one can possibly describe reducing the bills of the poorest and elderly this winter in such a way. Really sticking in the claw though is that there is both mass public and media support for taking on the energy companies - whilst the Daily Mail might not have supported a windfall tax, it has been just as angry if not angrier than papers on the left as what it sees as the obscene profiteering and greed in the City, and would have been livid if the companies had attempted to pass the costs back onto the consumer. With Brown's proposals, any chance of there being a simply response if they do exactly that is unlikely to say the least.

There was though another incident at the TUC conference that did show that the Conservative attempt to sell itself as new is only worth so much, and that was Harriet Harman's announcement of yet another quango to investigate social mobility. It wasn't that though but rather than an article went round beforehand which used the "c" word which so exercised Theresa May. You can expect the Torygraph to start screeching about class war, but for Theresa May to do so in almost the exact same language when her own party is currently trying to sell the idea that it believes in greater equality and is the real "progressive" party was pure chutzpah. The real issue is that Labour has long since abandoned calling a spade a spade; whilst the Mail, as Dave Osler points out shouts from the roof-tops about the middle class and the Torygraph invents the "coping classes" to laughably describe its readers, mention or allude to the working class and suddenly we're back to the class war. This is partly because all the main political parties have liked to pretend for some time that we are all bourgeois now, or come up with euphemisms or other identifying features to target voters, but it's also because few of them even seem to want the working class vote, or if they do, to say that they do. Class, above gender, race, sexual orientation or anything else is the main signifier of how you will get on in life and where you will get in it. Labour has demonstratively failed to improve social mobility, but for May then to suggest that Harman also hasn't done anything to tackle gender inequality when she only recently announced plans for positive discrimination, even if you don't agree with it, is plainly churlish.

This is where the idea of the new Tories so falls down. It's not that Cameron and his supporters don't mean what they say - they plainly do, and it's not that he's a shallow salesman, which he is, but then so was Blair. It's that their ideas are contradictory, flawed and less likely to work than Labour's. Jonathan Rutherford and Jon Cruddas have effortlessly identified this in their "Is the future Conservative?" essay from the pamphlet of the same name (PDF). First Cameron repudiated Thatcher by saying there is such a thing as society - it's just not the same thing as the state, then they moved on past questioning the economic position of society, which was not in the position it is now, to instead challenge the breakdown in society, or as they call it, the broken society. In fact, the Conservatives have hardly anything approaching an economic policy, with their only real commitment to "share the proceeds of growth". When Northern Rock failed, the Conservatives didn't have any idea how to respond, except to oppose nationalisation and attempt to paint Labour's delayed decision to as another throwback to Old Labour. Along with this has been their supposed commitment to "making education an adventure, giving children ‘the chance to take risks, push boundaries and test themselves outside their comfort zone’", whilst supporting the academy project which in most areas is doing the exact opposite of this with their almost regimental emphasis on discipline, curriculum, uniform and conformity. Just read the horrifying description of the Evelyn Grace academy in Brixton in today's Grauniad, which sounds almost Orwellian with its slogans of "excellence, endeavour and self-discipline" on posters on the walls. Their decision to recognise marriage in the tax system, with up to £20 a week being the mooted break being given, is both cynical and an incredibly simple non-solution to what is an incredibly complex problem. They have also increasingly moved from so-called compassionate conservatism or Cameron's own description of himself as a liberal Conservative to the old hectoring against the feckless and overweight, whether from Cameron himself or even less subtly from Andrew Lansley. And finally, whilst trying to suggest that they are the new progressives, the new intake of Conservative candidates for parliament are profoundly socially conservative, with their solutions to the "broken society" also being even more punitive than Labour's criminal justice policies.

Cameron has succeeded because he has adopted the language of empathy, of insecurity and of change. He has abandoned the "Continuity IDS" faction while still managing to take them along with him, much like Blair took the wider left along with him in their desire for power. The comparison is apt because rather than being genuinely new Tories, Cameron's Conservatives are instead the unapologetic new Blairites, able to do what only Blair and the even more Blair than Blair Blairites dreamed of doing. The only point on which I disagree with Rutherford and Cruddas is that they suggest the future is for the left to lose. On the contrary, the left has already lost. The Labour party has shifted so far to the right, and indeed, is controlled by those on the centre-right that it is simply impossible to believe that it could ever readjust to the policies which Cruddas and Rutherford propose in response to the new Conservatives. The sooner that the left realises that the Labour party is dead the sooner it will be able to challenge the new consensus which exists between the old new Labour and the new Blairite Conservatives.

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Crying over spilt liquid part 4.

Almost certainly the last post on this for now, but Lewis Page over on El Reg has written an excellent piece going into great detail on why the liquid bombs plot in his opinion was viable. Considering that he was a mine clearance diving officer and knows his stuff and I on the other hand have never so much as touched a chemistry set, I'll more than take his word for it.

There are of course still considerations to take into account though. There was, as we know, no evidence they had concocted a viable bomb, although Sarwar does seem to have boiled down the hydrogen peroxide to the right dilution. That still doesn't mean that it necessarily would have exploded - I would have expected they would have wanted to test it first, something more feasible than testing the bombs which the 7/7 and 21/7 attackers made. Considering it took the boffins as Page calls them 30 attempts it wouldn't be surprising if Sarwar had to make a similar number of efforts before getting it right, and even then it wouldn't be certain that he would have got it right for every single one of the devices they were going to make. It has to be remembered that Sarwar had a finite amount of HP and a finite amount of time, although he did have a decent quantity. It does also make you wonder if indeed he had failed repeatedly whether they would then have considered changing their plans to targeting something other than planes, if indeed that was what they were plotting to destroy. Again, then there's still the problem of getting through airport security, and Charlieman on Lib Con thinks this would have been potentially more difficult than Page does.

None of this affects however the trial itself, which didn't rest on their ability to make bombs - although it was certainly a matter of question whether they truly could have done, and one which most certainly needed looking into as I attempted to do - but on the fact that the prosecution, police and the politicians all claimed that they were to explode these bombs on aircraft causing "mass-murder on an unimaginable scale". That still was not justified, nor has it been proved in a court of law, and nor could the plotters have done so due to the amount of surveillance they were under. Exaggerated then yes, a potential threat to our liberties through over-reaction yes, but completely impossible? Definitely not.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008 

Wolves in sheep's clothing.

If you put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig. Strangely though, if you put lipstick on George W. Bush, and squint hard enough, you might just see Sarah Palin. After all, victory is coming to Eye-raq!

(In fairness to Bush, I'm not sure even he supports the teaching of creationism in schools or opposition to abortion in cases of rape or incest.)

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Crying over spilt liquid part 3.

The Crown Prosecution Service is rather unsurprisingly seeking the retrial of all 7 men in the "liquid bombs" case, on all the charges which the jury couldn't reach a verdict on. While this was always likely, the question has to be asked: what makes the CPS so certain that a second jury won't come to the same verdict if there is no new evidence presented to prove that the plot was to explode liquid bombs on aircraft? As noted ad nauseam already, the actual amount of evidence pointing towards the targeting of transatlantic flights is relatively slight. Originally this was brushed off as being down to how the police and security services had to act quickly due to the arrest of Rashid Rauf, but today a "security source" said this to the Grauniad:

"Even if [the surveillance operation] had gone on for a few more days we would not have found anything better as evidence than what was found in the first 24 hours," the source said.

This is surely either bluster or an attempt to heal the wounds with the Americans, notoriously prickly about their own counter-terror and intelligence efforts. If this plot genuinely was going to target aircraft, surely if the plotters had purchased tickets or had all received their passports that would have made a huge difference to the prosecution case. As it is, one jury has already failed to be convinced by the evidence which this source thinks couldn't have been surpassed.

To go onto more speculative territory, you have to wonder whether this case might help persuade the security services that it's time that intercept evidence was made admissible in court. Considering the breadth of the operation which was undertaken to monitor the suspects, and as yesterday's Panorama showed, this more or less entailed following the main players wherever they went, it would be difficult to believe if they hadn't been bugging their phones or otherwise. While it might not provide the ocular proof if they were as guarded as they may have been, the continuing refusal to admit such evidence becomes more and more untenable as time goes by.

Then, finally, there is Rashid Rauf himself. Does anyone honestly believe the story that he happened to escape whilst being allowed to pray in a roadside mosque, or even that the policemen were bribed into letting him go? His lawyer has suggested that he believes he might have been taken into the black hole which is the ISI's detention, but is it so outlandish to imagine that he might have instead been transferred into US custody and is now languishing in one of their remaining black sites? A few years back that could of easily been dismissed as a fanciful conspiracy theory, but can we completely rule it out now? The lack of condemnation from our side, despite our apparent willingness to arrest two separtists which the Pakistan government requested in return for Rauf might speak volumes. Then again, perhaps Occam's Razor should be applied until there is any compelling evidence to prove otherwise.

We should of course wait and see what this second jury decides. If they do reach the same lack of a verdict which the first did, it will then be highly significant what decision is then taken as to what should be done with them. More compelling evidence could potentially still be revealed. It's hard not to imagine however that if a second jury "fails" in the same way which the first did, that it may well mean the introduction of the very measures which Peter Clarke so boastfully but also sinisterly mentioned we had not yet resorted to yesterday.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008 

Crying over spilt liquid continued.

You'd have to say that the response to the ignominious end of the "liquid bomb" plot trial has been little short of remarkable. I've just finished watching the Panorama special on the plotters, produced with an incredible amount of co-operation with both the police and the security services, which was most likely sitting there waiting to be shown as soon as the jury reached their decision, no doubt hastily re-edited yesterday and today to be in line with the conviction of only three and then not for conspiracy to cause murder through explosions on planes.

It, like almost all the rest of the media, didn't question in any great detail the idea that the plotters could have pulled off the plans that we're told they had in mind, because again, there was little to no evidence presented that they themselves knew what the targets were going to be, and very little dispute that they were almost ready to go. The evidence for the targeting of planes amounts to, as mentioned yesterday, the fact that one of plotters had downloaded information of transatlantic flights to his memory stick, the details from the diary which suggested getting the devices through security, most likely airport security, and that two of the plotters were heard discussing different holiday destinations in line with which were the most popular for British tourists. The questioning of the readiness of the devices themselves amounted to the presenter Peter Taylor asking a government scientist whether what the suspects planned was possible. Mindful of his words and being as non-committal as possible, he said yes, and said that it would have been possible to blow an airplane out of the sky with one of the bombs in a bottle.

Just in case we didn't get that, shown on news bulletins throughout the day on the BBC has been their own experiment using a bomb apparently made to the same specifications being placed inside the hull of an aircraft. It explodes, and punctures the hull successfully, which you can see here. The problem with this is the same as with the other government tests shown to the jury: that these are professionals with experience of what they're doing with the best available materials. It also doesn't take into account the circumstances in which the bombers would be working: the bomb made for the BBC appears to have been put together almost on the spot, something that the bombers would not have done. As Charlieman points out on Liberal Conspiracy, TATP is incredibly volatile and begins to degrade very quickly. This was part of the reason why the 21/7 bombers' devices failed. The liquid bomb plot would have involved even higher dilutions of the hydrogen peroxide, increasing drastically the danger of it going off prematurely while also decreasing its "shelf-life". Additionally, it's by no means certain that such a bomb on board an aircraft would even then have the catastrophic consequences which the police and politicians claimed it would: only recently we saw the consequences of the explosive decompression on the Qantas flight, which managed to land safely. An even worse ED was suffered on Aloha Airlines Flight 243, which also managed to land with the loss of just one person and injuries to 60 others. One of the few other new facts added by the Panorama documentary was that Sarwar, the alleged bomb maker, had successfully boiled down some of the HP to the right dilution. Again though, the programme didn't bother to point that the bombs had still to assembled, that they had not constructed a viable device and that when you consider the difficulty involved in doing so they were still a long way from creating just one, let alone the 7 which the prosecution claimed there would be.

It isn't just however the security services and the police that found the verdict of the jury "astonishing", as spooks' friend Frank Gardner put it, it's also been sections of the media who are incredulous at them not convicting all the men for their obvious murderous ambitions. The Times for one went absolutely overboard, not just enlisting Peter Clarke for an tendentious article on how the "surveillance society" works just wonderfully, but also their lead article, which includes this nugget:

The jury’s indecision in the face of a detailed Crown case raises questions about the public perception of the terror threat that could undermine government attempts to introduce further security legislation.

They just don't seem to get it, do they? You could apply that reasoning to both the hacks and the public. We're told by the Times, Peter Clarke and the security services that this was "strong evidence", "a detailed Crown case" and "the strongest terrorism case ever presented to a court", but they seem to have started believing their own hype. Yes, there was a very strong case here for the men being involved in some sort of terrorist plot, which is why three of them have been convicted of conspiracy to murder, and will likely be sentenced to very long terms of imprisonment, in line with the likes of Dhiren Barot, who had even more laughable plans than those of the non-existent ricin crew. There was however very little hard evidence that planes were the targets, as has been discussed. What seems to have happened is similar to that in cases of miscarriages of justice: the briefers have been out briefing and the journalists' sources have been whispering furiously into ears about the obvious guilt of those on trial, and when it doesn't go according to plan, they respond by blaming everyone other than themselves, with the journalists also flummoxed.

Hence along with the Americans getting the blame for ordering the arrest of Rauf, also being fingered are the jury themselves. The fact that there was a two-week break in proceedings for holidays, that some members of the jury were sick and otherwise is regarded as significant enough to be commented upon, especially by the Daily Mail, referring to it as a "farce". That those involved have given up nearly six months of their lives to hear an incredibly difficult case and then have to come up with a verdict is of no consequence; since they've come to the wrong one they're apparently fair game. They're also hardly likely to be able to defend themselves, as the only jury members I can recall speaking out recently were some of those involved in the ricin case after those acquitted were subjected to control orders, and then some of those involved in the original case involving Barry George, who had changed their minds over time.

It's perhaps a little over-the-top to be concerned immediately about the prospect of jury trials in terrorist cases being curtailed as a result of this verdict, but what if another jury also fails to find the men guilty of conspiring to cause explosions on planes? As the Times also reports, the man completely acquitted of all the charges, Mohammed Gulzar, is now likely to be given a control order. That's justice for you: a jury finds you not guilty but the state with its secret evidence tribunals disregards that entirely. I'm sure I won't be the only one to find potential menace also in the words of Peter Clarke, especially in these two paragraphs:

Take this case. To save the lives of the innocent and convict the would-be killers we used all the tools in the security armoury. Deeply intrusive surveillance, informants, CCTV, DNA, telephone call data and so on. This was not about collecting information for its own sake - it was to secure evidence to put before a court.

Some critics fail to understand that sophisticated, modern evidence gathering has allowed the most complex terrorist conspiracies to be tried in our criminal courts in front of a jury. No need for military commissions or the juryless Diplock courts of Northern Ireland.

And yet despite all of this evidence the jury were still failed to be convinced that planes were the targets. In any event, what Clarke is describing is a false dichotomy between surveillance and security; nothing that the police did broke the current rules as they were, and in fact, in their breaking into the "bomb factory" and planting bugs and live cameras they were using the oldest tricks in the book. It's the implication though in the second paragraph which both needles and worries. To begin with, it's not as if we're some wonderful place where every alleged terrorist is subjected to a court trial: just above we mentioned that Gulzar is likely to be given a control order, where the evidence against him will be heard in secret and not given to his lawyers. It wasn't so long back that we were locking foreign suspects up indefinitely without charge, and Clarke himself was at the forefront of pushing for support for 42 days detention without charge. What though if ever more complex cases keep coming before juries and they keep failing to reach the "correct" result? Are we really so potentially far away from military commissions or Diplock style courts? After all, juries in some fraud trials are already mooted to be abolished. Just how many more cases like yesterday's will it take before populist politicians with an eye on the standard of debate in the tabloids decide that this "farce" should be brought to an end?

Clarke continues:

And what if we had failed? What if the prosecution case was right, and half a dozen American airliners were to be brought down by British terrorists, operating from Britain and in effect using the UK as a launch pad for an attack on the United States? What would have happened to the UK and indeed the global economy? What would the impact have been on UK/US relations? What about the pressure it would have placed on Muslims in the UK? A very senior politician, at the time of the arrests, told me he thought it could have led to a breakdown in the community cohesion that had survived the attacks in 2005.

But these are all suppositions. The security services and police had been aware of these men and were documenting their every movement. There was never the slightest possibility they were going to be allowed to even take the first steps towards actually carrying out an atrocity. The only reason the arrests were brought forward was because of Rauf's arrest, and the possibility of the disruption of the plot. Less plausible is something Clarke says at the beginning of the article:

More worrying still, if they were tipped off to the arrest they might panic and mount a desperate attack.

As we have seen though, the devices simply weren't anywhere near ready, and even if they had the right amounts of diluted HP, there's still no indication that their attempts at constructing the bombs in full would have been any more successful than the government scientists' ones. And please, Clarke really should spare us the spurious concern for community cohesion: he was directly involved in the Forest Gate raid, which did more damage to the rapport with British Muslims and the actions of some in their communities than anything else has.

Should the restrictions now be lifted on liquids then, as Virgin Atlantic has called for? While as I've attempted to document, the dangers are vastly overstated and the problems involved in creating liquid explosives are manifold, I still think it's probably right for the moment for caution to be erred on, although the limit could perhaps be lifted from 100ml bottles to 250ml or above, and the idea that babies' bottles could be used is ridiculous.

Most of all however, the conclusion of this case should not cause panic amongst politicians or security agencies as to whether the public has become blase towards the terrorist threat. They clearly haven't. What is apparent however is that many are increasingly concerned about the febrile exaggeration of such cases, including this one and the claims of mass-murder on an unimaginable scale which simply are not backed up by the facts, and which is often for short-term political gain. The Panorama documentary also completely established that John Reid had long been aware of the "plot", meaning that his speech damning civil libertarians for not getting it just the day before the arrests was cynicism of the absolute worst kind. We don't like it when concerns about terrorism lead jumped-up police officers and community support staff to order people not to take photographs of public buildings, and we also don't like it when the threat of terror is used wholesale to justify the removal of ever more liberties, as the failure to reach a verdict in this trial could yet do. There is a terrorist threat, but it's not going to lead to the demise of this nation, and it doesn't even begin to amount to the that posed either by the Nazis in 1940 or to the Soviet Union during the height of the cold war. The same newspapers and media which want us to be scared are the same ones, ironically, that want us at the same time to have Churchillian resolve in the face of it. We need neither, and that has to be emphasised.

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Murdoch for McCain.

It's interesting to note that the New York Post, essentially the American version of the Sun, has today endorsed McCain for the presidency. It's something of a surprise, mainly because it's come so early, with the election still two months away, and also because of Murdoch's flirting with Obama. The Sun notably has lavished great praise on Obama, while little has been written of McCain. It took the vice-presidential choice of Sarah Palin to excite the tabloid to any extent.

As always with Murdoch, self-interest is paramount. He recently commented that he had preferred Obama to Hillary for the Democratic nomination because he would sell more newspapers. The emergence of Palin may now have affected that equation: it would be interesting to see whether newspaper sales shot up last week in line with the huge amount of chatter which the choice of Palin launched online. We also have to keep in mind that Murdoch backs winners; again, up until the picking of Palin, McCain's campaign looked dead in the water. Since then it's been re-energised, with the latest Gallup polls showing him getting a huge bounce from the RNC, and taking a large lead. A one off perhaps, but something that may well have affected Murdoch's thinking.

More likely though is that Murdoch made his decision based on two things that the NYP also lists as the most important factors: national security and taxes. We all know about Murdoch's views on the Iraq war, and the "success" (mostly down to the Awakening movements, with the other insurgent groupings turning on AQI/ISI) of the surge, which McCain backed to the hilt, and we also know that Obama has promised to cut the taxes of the poor and middle classes, while McCain has turned away from his former denouncing of the Bush tax cuts for the rich to now support them.

As one of the commenters on Greenslade's piece notes, the early announcing of who the NYP is backing is probably down to the uncertainty of who is going to win. If in two months' time Obama triumphs, it'll most likely pretend that this never happened. If McCain wins, then it'll probably be the NYP that wot won it. Whatever happens, Murdoch is as ever, likely to prosper.

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Monday, September 08, 2008 

Crying over spilt liquid.

There will be more than a few surprised people tonight, both in the media and outside it, at the verdict reached by the jury in the "liquid explosives" trial. The case, after all, had been presented, as George Tenet famously said, as a "slam-dunk". Here were 8 Muslim extremists, caught red-handed with quantities of hydrogen peroxide, used by both the 7/7 and 21/7 bombers in their attacks, having recorded "martyrdom videos" and with apparent plans for the blowing up mid-flight of an unspecified number of transatlantic planes. There were shrieks of initial incredulity then horror from the press, all liquids in containers above 100ml were banned from planes as a precaution, with mothers having to taste their babies' milk, apparently as a result of claims that the bombers were prepared to blow up their children and use their bottles as containers for the explosives, and from both the police and the politicians, accusations and boasts that they had successfully foiled mass-murder on a grand scale.

Two years later and at the end of the £10,000,000 trial, just three of the suspects have been convicted of conspiracy to murder, and even then not on aircraft. One man has been acquitted altogether, while five others will most likely face a retrial after the jury failed to reach a verdict on their charges of conspiracy to murder. Already we have those with close contacts with the spooks being highly defensive: Frank Gardner on the BBC more or less suggesting that the security services were outraged that the jury had failed to reach the right verdict. The Sun tomorrow has a very similar, defensive editorial from what I've seen.

All of which brings to mind the fiasco of the "ricin" trial, where as everyone now knows, there was no ricin, and where only Kamel Bourgass, who murdered a police officer whom was attempting to arrest him, was convicted of any conceivable plot. The analogy is not quite right, because while the ricin plot was laughable and absurd, this one was clearly not, and what else is clear is that at least the three today convicted of conspiracy to murder were deadly serious. What is similar is that both appeared to have ideas way beyond their station, that they imagined they could pull off an incredibly dastardly and fiendish, murderous plot, despite their own inadequacies and lack of training.

If you examine the actual prosecution against the men somewhat closer, it soon becomes apparent that the case for planes to be blow up in mid-air was if not completely weak, hardly robust. For all the surveillance work that was undertaken on the men, which seems to have amounted to hundreds of hours, they don't seem to have at any point caught them directly discussing the plot, let alone the idea that they were going to blow up planes, or if they did, we don't seem to have been given the access to it which the jury was. The only evidence that convincingly points towards airplanes being the target was the flight times which were found on a memory stick in one of the men's possession, and the diary notes made by the alleged ringleader, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, that give the impression that the materials which were to make the bomb were to be smuggled through security at airports. It's little wonder that the jury failed to reach a verdict, as such evidence was hardly likely to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt of their guilt, as the prosecution and security services surely knew.

There have been reasons from the very beginning to doubt that even if the plot was to mirror that of Project Bojinka, dreamed up by Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that these individuals would have been any more successful than Yousef in their attempts. The story at first was that the ingredients for the bombs were to be taken on the planes and mixed in the toilets, which was quickly laughed at by scientists for its impracticability. Instead what the prosecution set out to prove was that the bombs were instead to be manufactured at the flat beforehand, then smuggled onto the planes in soft drinks bottles, before being detonated mid-flight using hollowed-out batteries filled with the explosive HMTD, with cameras or mp3 players used as the power source. To this end the prosecution showed the jury film of government experts detonating bombs to this specification, and as could be expected, they packed a mighty wallop. Those videos were replayed again today, accompanied by an American video of an aircraft being torn apart by an explosion, supposedly again via similar explosives, although no real explanation about this test was given. What was not as well reported by the media was the fact that the explosives expert giving evidence admitted that it had taken them over 30 attempts to construct a viable bomb, and that the one they showed had been one of a series, doubtless the most powerful. They also had to admit that the components were so volatile that the detonator had to be added by mechanical arm, rather than by a human, lest the mixture go off in their faces.

As I wrote at the time that this evidence was given:

So, as yesterday, this is the experts who know what they're doing using the exact same materials as the rank amateurs were meant to, and the danger of rather than explosives blowing up a plane but instead going off in the face of the bomb-maker was so great that the detonator had to be inserted using a remote-controlled machine. We're meant to assume that if this plot was going to come to fruition that the 8 men were going to overcome the volatility of the materials they were using, something the experts couldn't, succeed in smuggling the bombs onto an airplane without the explosives going off prematurely on the journey to the airport and then the plane, and then again manage, after fully constructing the bomb, to detonate it without anyone else noticing what they were up to with an explosion so successful that it would result in the deaths of everyone on board.

Additionally, the prosecution also admitted that no viable bomb had been constructed by the men, although this was supposedly only a matter of time.

Quickly, now that the trial has reached a somewhat ignominious end, the security services are searching for an acceptable reason other than the over-egging and exaggeration of the plot. Being fingered are the Americans, for upsetting the applecart in the first place. It was they who apparently ordered the Pakistanis to arrest Rashid Rauf, who is alleged to have links to al-Qaida, and who is wanted here in connection with the murder of an uncle. This arrest apparently either would have alerted the bombers to the unravelling of the plot, and so have gone forward with it, despite the apparent lack of readiness, with some of the proposed bombers not having passports, and with no viable bomb actually constructed, or would have led to them destroying the evidence. Indeed, some have suggested that there was a message received from Pakistan for the bombers to "go now", again despite their inability to be able to do so. The difficulty in confirming this version of events is obvious: Rashid Rauf mysteriously "escaped" from custody in December last year, although the charges against him had already been thrown out.

For all these reasons it was prudent to be sceptical about the ability of the men to carry out such a complicated and spectacular attack. Again, there have been repeated accusations of links to al-Qaida, with Ali apparently in Pakistan at the same time as Mohammed Siddique Khan and the ringleader of the 21/7 attacks, but this is hardly conclusive evidence of al-Qaida membership. Despite the success of 9/11, al-Qaida has generally stuck to the tried-and-tested lone bomber or car/truck suicide attack. The difficulties with replicating such tactics here are that the explosives which make those attacks so relatively simple and cheap to pull off are not readily available. The fertiliser bomb plot has been the only recently foiled terror attack which was to involve the more conventional ammonium nitrate. The 7/7 and 21/7 attacks instead involved the boiling of hydrogen peroxide and mixing with other household items to create either TATP or HMTD, both of which are extremely volatile, especially when boiled to the dilution required for the bombs to pack a large enough punch at 500ml. The plotters did have decent quantities of hydrogen peroxide, probably well beyond what they needed for 8 500ml containers. We also now know that they had apparently sought out other targets, including nuclear sites. al-Qaida generally prides itself on its technical abilities; if this was their doing, would they really have been so set on a Project Bojinka style plot where it was by no means certain that it could be pulled off, especially with hydrogen peroxide rather than nitroglycerin? Why not instead go in for a repeat of the 7/7 attacks, or step it up slightly and go for a car bomb targeting another soft target, like the Glasgow airport attackers, but with actual explosives?

All of this ought to have sown doubts in the minds of the jurors over the bombers' intentions. Just to stress again, it's clear that some of these men were potentially highly dangerous, especially those convicted of conspiracy to murder. They were certainly takfirist jihadists, or at least some of them were. Again, this is undermined somewhat by the doubt over just how far the plot had gone along: only one will was found, and the prosecution only seem to have said that Ali was certain to die in the attacks. If they hadn't been arrested or been under surveillance, they may well have gone on to take part in an attack which could have killed innocent people.

Once again though, it's difficult not to be shocked by the incompetence, arrogance, egotism and extreme exaggeration which took place both before and after the disruption of the "plot". It's worth remembering that just the day before John Reid had delivered a speech ridiculing civil libertarians as not getting it, when he most certainly knew that very night that raids were going to be taking place to bring the accused in. He and police officers then delivered bloodcurdling claims that this was to be "mass murder on an unimaginable scale", already potentially affecting the possibility of the men getting a fair trial. As Craig Murray notes, the most diabolical hyperbole was spread about the men potentially killing their children and using babies' bottles, when this was nonsense as the trial showed. All along, they knew just how weak the case was but are now most likely again likely to blame the jury instead of themselves. Then there's the media, which swallowed wholesale from the very beginning the whole idea that such an attack involving liquid explosives was possible, even while experts were disputing it. The coverage of the trial was an absolute joke, as evidenced by my attempts to get to the bottom of the claims about the explosives themselves: different papers and sources seemed to be inclined to provide only one different fact between the lot of them, with the BBC mentioning that up to 30 attempts had been made by the experts before they succeeded, something not reported elsewhere, and the Telegraph reporting on the volatility of the bombs, while only the Press Association and the Guardian mentioned that the men had not succeeded in building a viable device. Half the reason why there will be so much surprise at the verdict is that they failed to bother to report almost any of the defence case apart from the stunt and documentary one. Even much of the prosecution case was ignored.

Some will doubtless argue that if the men had been left longer more damning evidence would have emerged against the men. Most likely it would. That still however leaves the open quandary of the expertise needed for viable bombs to be made, which further gives the impression that they may well have abandoned the Bojinka style plot further down the line, if indeed they had at any point planned to blow up aircraft. None of this however justifies the politicising of the raid by New Labour at the time, the idiotic and reprehensible briefings which accompanied it about the casualties that would have been involved, and the general assuming of guilt which is now common place in terrorist cases. It has to be remembered that cases like this are the ones being used to further dilute our own liberty, the apparently limitless amounts of information which the group had pointed to for why 42 days or longer is needed, all without there being anything approaching a real, immediately dangerous plot being disrupted. We have comprehensively failed to keep the terrorist threat in perspective: it's true that we have to be lucky all the time and the terrorists only have to been lucky once, but this needs to be seen in the context of the failures which are now totting up. First 21/7, which was extremely lucky, then this plot, which was ridiculously overblown, then Abu Beavis and Abu Butthead, with no explosives but plenty of petrol and canisters. Add in Nicky Reilly and what we see are fantasists, unable to live up to their ambitions. If these are the pick of the al-Qaida crop from this country, do we really have so much to fear? It's time that we looked more realistically at the threat and demanded that the age of spin and politicising of it came to an end. Only then might we then learn more about how to more effectively fight it before the raids become necessary.

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